Activity in the great harbour of Herbergja followed the seasons. The mild summer months saw countless ships arrive and depart, carrying out trade between the inner lands and the South Cities. As the harvest months approached, commerce slowed to a trickle before being choked by winter storms. During the cold season, only a handful of vessels would enter or leave on shorter trips; either they conducted the simple trade still possible and needed during this time, or else they carried out military tasks such as patrolling the Eylonde Sea. Once winter came to an end, activity would blossom once more.
This year, spring had the same effect as always on the harbour, yet for another reason. Although the warehouses overflowed with goods meant for the South and beyond, none were being loaded onto ships. Any merchant vessel braving that journey could expect to be boarded by Alcázar’s fleet and the cargo confiscated. There would be no trade this spring, except what those most daring might smuggle through the Teeth, and that would not be done from Herbergja, but from Portesur further south.
Instead, transports carrying soldiers and provisions filled the piers. With many ships unable to set sail for Alcázar, the marshal of Thusund had ample opportunities for pressing these vessels into service, and the last weeks had seen the departure of numerous ships for Fortönn or Dvaros. Most were empty upon return, though one transport proved an exception as six passengers disembarked alongside the crew. Their strange appearance, revealing them to be a disparate band, raised questions among the dockworkers, which the sailors were happy to answer; the passengers were none other than Adalbrand Arnarson and his most ardent followers, returned to the Seven Realms.
Passing through the crowds, Brand and his companions left the harbour to enter the city itself. The streets were nearly as busy as the port, thanks to the great size of Herbergja. People from all over Adalmearc and beyond lived here; different colours were seen, and different tongues could be heard.
If any building could be said to dominate Herbergja, it was the great keep. No rulers had built palaces here, nor was the city the principal home to any of the priesthoods. While the silrobes held sway, both because Herbergja lay in Thusund and because sailors and traders prayed to Disfara, their temple was modest compared to the Raven Court in Fontaine or the Temple of the Alfather in Middanhal. But the Order always kept a strong garrison in the city, guarding it against aggression over land from Ealond or over sea from the South Cities.
It was this great fortress that Brand steered towards, though he halted while its towers still rose in the distance. He took a heavy purse of silver, a parting gift from Svana, and gave it to Geberic. “You know what we need.” He glanced at Glaukos. “We will meet you afterwards.” The men nodded, and the band split into two; Brand and Jana continued towards the keep while the rest disappeared down another street.
The castle saw as much activity as the harbour did. Bands of infantry left on patrol, keeping order in the city or keeping watch of the area beyond the walls; other groups trained in the courtyard, transforming from raw recruits into disciplined soldiers. Archers, who learnt their craft hunting small birds in the isles where food was always scarce, kept their skills sharp as well.
“I almost miss Nicholas and even Quentin,” Brand remarked as they stood by the gate, peering inside.
“Who?” asked Jana.
“Two of the sharpest bowmen I have ever met,” he explained as a guard approached them.
“What’s your business here?” asked the soldier.
“I am Adalbrand Arnarson,” came the answer. “Your marshal will want to speak with me.”
By his side, as another train of soldiers passed through the gate and left the castle, Jana took his arm to steady herself. The guard glanced at them both, back and forth. “Wait here.”
Under the leadership of Geberic, the remaining companions marched through Herbergja. Eventually, Glaukos emitted a groan.
“What troubles you?” asked Alaric.
“I know where he is leading us,” Glaukos muttered. “We have preparations to make!”
“We also need to eat, don’t we,” the greybeard declared undisturbed.
“Every week we stayed in Herbergja, waiting for news of the captain, Geberic spent all his time in one place,” Glaukos added in explanation to Alaric.
“Not all my time!” came the objection. “Besides, so did you.”
“Because I worked there,” growled the heathman. “I earned honest silver keeping peace and breaking heads to that pursuit.”
“A long-winded way of saying you spent as much time in that tavern as me,” Geberic declared. He was rewarded with another groan.
“Something to eat and drink would not be out of place,” Alaric considered. “We all have long journeys ahead of us.”
“You must be starving,” Geberic said to Gwen. “After all, anytime something went down our stomach on the ship, it also came up again!” He laughed coarsely.
Gwen scowled at him, though her expression soon cleared. “Something to eat would be good,” she admitted. “Now that the ground is standing still, like the gods intended it to be.”
The band eventually reached a tavern that looked much the same as the others crowded around the harbour, offering their services to sailors thirsty from long days at sea. “Here we are,” Geberic declared with satisfaction. “The best ale in Herbergja, I promise you.”
“It tastes like rainwater, same as all the others,” Glaukos claimed.
“Better than seawater,” Alaric pointed out.
“Enough yapping, let’s get in,” Geberic demanded. The others followed him inside and took a table while the greybeard negotiated for food and ale with the proprietor. She seemed reluctant, demanding silver in hand before serving anything; Geberic, wielding a hefty pouch, paid her speedily. Unfriendly eyes around the room followed him and his bag of coin as he sat down with the others; seeing his heavily armed companions, those eyes quickly looked elsewhere. Soon after, tankards of beer and bowls of hot soup reached their table.
“To your health,” Geberic smiled, raising his cup.
“And yours,” replied Glaukos.
“And the captain’s,” Alaric added.
Each of them took a heavy draught and returned the tankards to the table with various amounts of force and exclamations of satisfaction.
While the others shovelled soup with vigour, Gwen seemed less interested in her food. “What do you all think of that woman that my cousin suddenly showed up with? Jana, that is.”
The three men looked at each other, some with a spoon sticking out of their mouth. “That is the captain’s decision,” Alaric remarked with a shrug. “It has no bearing on me.”
“I just find it odd,” Gwen continued. “He leaves all of us behind, travelling to Alcázar, saying we’d stick out and only ruin his disguise. Then he shows up with a woman in tow that none of us have ever heard about. Doesn’t it strike you as strange?”
“To be fair, she doesn’t stick out in Alcázar the way we would,” Geberic pointed out with a laugh. “The captain has his reasons for trusting her, and from what I’ve been told, those are good reasons.”
“I’m just concerned, I suppose,” the highlander woman said. “We’re walking into the dragon’s den. The four of us, we’ve been to the Reach and back with the captain. Meanwhile, her father is attacking the realms. She doesn’t strike me as one of us.”
“We are all exiles at this table,” Glaukos suddenly interjected. “Outlaws following an outlaw, all for our own reasons. So is she, an exile. And a damn good seamstress, judging by her stitches,” he added, prompting a grunt in acknowledgment from Geberic. “I would say she fits in.”
“I just think she might be a sign of trouble,” Gwen mumbled, grabbing her spoon to start eating.
“In that case, she certainly belongs with us,” Geberic said before turning his head into the room and raising his voice. “More ale, please!”
Brand and Jana was kept waiting a while at the castle gate before the guard returned and bid them enter. He did not escort them, but simply gave instructions on how to reach the marshal. The pair continued on their own, crossing the courtyard to many sounds; weapon masters shouted instructions, spears clashed with shields, smiths struck hammer against anvil, and arrows flew through the air.
The noise grew distant as they entered the keep itself. With most of the soldiers outside, either training or on patrol, the two visitors mostly encountered servants in the corridors. They made their way up to the higher floor, following the initial directions until they could knock on the door to the marshal’s study.
They did, finding the knight seated behind a desk. He appeared slim and sinewy, wearing armour and the surcoat of the Order and had the blue eyes and brown hair common among islanders. As he looked up at his guests, Brand inclined his head. “I am Adalbrand Arnarson,” he introduced himself, “and my companion is Lady Jana of Alcázar.”
The marshal motioned towards the other chairs in the room. While they sat down, he lifted a piece of parchment from his desk. “I was reading this again when I heard of your presence. An old letter sent from Sir Hákon at Fortönn, mentioning you both. Yet from the contents, it is clear you were meant to arrive along with the letter, not a month later.”
“We were delayed,” Brand admitted. “Our ship took us to Dvaros, and subsequent events left us trapped in the city. That is why we came, in fact,” he added. “Besides giving a belated report on matters in Alcázar, I thought you might welcome being informed on what happened in Dvaros.”
“A strange tale this letter told,” the knight said, waving the parchment in his hand. “Yet I have no reason to doubt Sir Hákon, especially as I see the lady with you exactly as described.” Jana shifted in her seat, but said nothing. “While I welcome knowledge of Dvaros, I think Sir Hákon’s letter has already told me all I need to know about Alcázar.”
“As you prefer, Sir Asger,” Brand acquiesced. “How is the situation at Fortönn? Are they prepared?”
The marshal scratched his full beard. “As best we can.” He took another piece of parchment from his desk. “This arrived the other day on the last ship from Fortönn. The fleet of Alcázar has been seen. By now, they will have landed.”
“Gods keep them safe,” Brand declared. “Sir Hákon is a good man.”
“He is, and a good knight.”
“Any hope you might send him relief?”
Asger glanced out the window of his study, overlooking the city. “Not if word from Fontaine is true. Sir Martel has sent warning that King Rainier is gathering his forces.”
Shock came over Brand’s face, while Jana had an obvious question on hers. “He cannot be so reckless!” he exclaimed. “Does he think Alcázar will leave Ealond untouched, should Thusund fall?”
“I doubt the king has considered that far,” Asger said. “He sees an opportunity for quick gain, and I must prepare to defend this city from southerners and rivermen alike.” He gave Brand a scrutinising look. “I could use the Dragonheart in such circumstances.”
Brand glanced at Jana. “As you think best,” she told him quietly.
“I am needed elsewhere,” he said at length.
“I admit disappointment,” the marshal spoke. “But the same deeds that make me seek your aid also tell me to trust in your decision.” Asger exhaled. “Tell me of Dvaros.”
His guests looked at each other and began recounting their time on the isle of Eldrey.
As the day began to wane, Brand and Jana made their way across Herbergja to reach one of the southern gates. They kept their hoods up and faces down, moving through the crowds. Once through the gate, they walked for a little while until they spotted Glaukos and Gwen. The latter stood by a cart filled with hay; Glaukos was feeding an apple to the horse harnessed to the wagon. Neither had weapons by their side.
“Are Geberic and Alaric underway?” asked Brand as they approached. He removed his sword from his belt, placing it under the hay in the cart with their other blades.
“Sailing down the river as we speak. Geberic will have no trouble reaching Middanhal before us, but it will be a tight run for Alaric to reach Hæthiod and return,” Glaukos said. He extended a hand to help Jana step up into the back of the wagon.
“We will have to wait, I suppose.” Brand followed Jana, positioning himself to have his hand near his hidden sword.
“We may stay hidden a while, keeping to the roads rather than the river,” Glaukos remarked, “but once we enter Adalrik…” His voice trailed off before he spoke again. “Sooner or later, someone will recognise us.”
“We will pray Alaric returns before that,” Brand simply said. “Let us go.”
Glaukos took seat in front of the cart, grabbing the reins. Gwen stepped up to sit next to him, and he set the horse into motion.